Imagine that an important newspaper in your community interviews ex-employees and writes an unflattering piece about your firm. Would you say, when you read it, as the CEO of Amazon said, “I don’t recognize that place?” Would you perhaps think that ex-employees are not a good source of what’s right in the workplace?
Consider this: Everyone’s experience of the workplace is unique and their own. It’s unrealistic – almost comical – to consider that those in the most powerful, senior positions will be experiencing the same workplace as those in other roles. Employee opinion surveys regularly highlight the deep divide between those in power and those at lower levels. Barry Oshry’s book Seeing Systems is a wonderful primer on normal, systemic challenges operating within hierarchies.
So, without getting defensive, consider that you may not fully know and understand the challenges your team members are facing. Consider that the information that is shared “up the chain” may be filtered and framed to protect people’s interests. Consider that ex-employees may feel safer and able to be more honest than those still working with you.
Want to know what’s really going on? If you prefer not to be blindsided, and not to depend on your HR team to be your radar, here are some tips:
- Schedule and keep regular one-on-one meetings with your team members. Private meetings are the place for you to listen empathetically and get a true sense of what each person is experiencing. Concerns about the work group or the atmosphere won’t arise in group settings in the same way.
- Create safety in these meetings. You do that with your body language (relaxed and open) your tone (interested but not aggressive) and the kinds of questions you ask (curious not grilling). Pay attention to the other person’s too, and make an effort to relax them if they seem unsure or anxious.
- Show interest in the person separate from the problem, issue or task being discussed. Alongside your problem-solving discourse and your intellectual debate, remember to acknowledge the person across from you. Slow down the high-speed verbiage enough to recognize they are a person – not a resource. You show interest by asking a question about their experience. Simple, open-ended questions work best when followed by interested listening. “How was that meeting for you?” or “I wonder if you can help me understand how this is impacting you.”
- No matter how tough your message and how serious the situation, stay concerned with the self-efficacy of those you work with. Feedback is not an effective learning tool when it erodes the receiver’s confidence. A simple rule is to pause to check before you speak: Is what you are about to share True; is it Useful and is it Kind? (Remember TUK). When you answer yes to all three criteria, you will provide feedback that works.
- Never be too busy to listen in the heat of the moment. Many truths will be shared when people are emotional – but they won’t share with you if you aren’t there, or if you hold it against them later. Kindly allow space for human reactions, without fanning the flames of momentary outbursts. Be too busy to gossip or scheme against others. Your best supportive move is to use using gentle questions to move people from ineffective frustration, anger and complaining to a more self-confident action-orientation. “Now, what can you do about that?” “What is your next best step in this situation?”
- In team meetings, be the one to draw attention to the unspeakable and name the “elephant in the room”. Check your perspective with the team. Show that you are not afraid to hear the truth and that you can calmly confront issues. Be known as the leader who is attuned to what’s going on and the one who wants to deal openly with it. Stop whining and complaining with a pragmatic realism focused on next steps.
- Discover natural ways to show up spontaneously. Maybe it’s walking around the office. Maybe it’s an unplanned phone call or visit. Drop into meetings that are in progress. The more you act like you’re no big deal, the more people will relax around you. At lunch, sit with different people. Take your coffee break outside of your office. Look approachable. If you are always head-down, texting or phoning or reading intently, you signal that you don’t want to be interrupted.
Finally, relax your need to have total work satisfaction from your team all the time. In reality, there will always be someone having a bad day. Real engagement waxes and wanes throughout our year. When you notice that someone’s demeanor is changing – they are more or less energetic than usual – show an interest. Privately extend support. Don’t make assumptions and don’t poke them. Try saying, “I’m here this afternoon if you want to talk.” Remind them that you are available and accessible. This doesn’t mean you need to solve every issue. Sometimes the best support from a leader is to redirect to HR professionals or EAP.